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Lawrence Burns

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Oxford, Cambridge and Ivy League Universities are often revered above others. What do people make of this?

Oxford and other Ivy League universities have the reputation of being fine institutions that educate their students rigorously. They are viewed by many as being at the top of the pecking order and their degrees are viewed as a bench-mark for students. Competition for places is high so the Universities get their pick of the students as their degrees are so sought after. They are often seen as a key into the high end of professions such as law and banking. The academics are highly respected and viewed as an authority in their area of study.

I sat my undergraduate degree at Oxford University - the workload was considerably higher than on the corresponding courses at other Universities so it was a challenge in that sense. Beyond this and the ancient buildings though, I didn't find it particularly special. There is this aura about the place that it must be full of brilliant people and often people are amazed in my home town of Sheffield when I mention that I have studied there. There is still a huge class association with Oxford. I also find it worrying that people would look up to graduates and professors of these institutions like they are authorities. Naturally a lot of graduates and professors could be happy to agree with this! It's tempting to go along with the view that these institutions are simply the bees-knees, particularly after working so hard in them but I wonder if everybody thinks this. It sometimes saddens me when I hear people express regret that they didn't 'get in' to sit a course at Oxford as if this means that they must be less intelligent than somebody who did 'get in'. Some people never seem to let this go. My experience was that the students and professors are really just another mixed-bag - most are nothing special, some are pretty talented and a lot of them in my view can become quite arrogant and narrow-minded.

I wonder what people's perceptions of these universities are? Should they be so revered?


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    Nov 13 2011: Hi there

    My father obtained is PhD from Cambridge as a mature student (! was 9 when he started his 3 years at Cambridge). Both my parents were academics and I did what it a seems a number of academic children do and i rebelled at 16 against education and left school with very few qualifications. I went on to work and after being incredibly bored for 3 years in the public sector went back to education but into what would have been then polytechnics. I did not at 21 have any real understanding of the hierarchy of further and higher education, I just knew i wanted to have a life where i could earn money to live. 25 years later I am now an academic - how history repeats itself in a University which is certainly not ivy league and believes in inclusion and widening participation in being world class. Before i went to work there 4 years ago, I did have the opportunity to work with a number of higher education institutes and recognised that quality is quality whatever age an institution has. Quality is based upon the whole student experience, not just what goes on in the classroom.

    Now I loved living in Cambridge and I found the whole idea of gowns and ritual exciting as a child looking in but it wasnt what I wanted as a 21 year old. i wanted skills and experiences that would help me get a job and I really didnt see myself as an academic. I saw my father as one, someone who researched within a positivist paradigm and added to the research community. Did it give him a good life getting a PhD from Cambridge? yes it opened doors but his hard work made him the man he is.

    There is a hierarchy in all levels of education - we are now looking at free schools and academies and society will persuade us that we need to choose the best for our child. I agree but the best is not necessarily the Ivy League. the best is what you experience overall in making you the person that you are today which could be the local college, Open University or Oxbridge.
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      Nov 14 2011: Hello Christine.

      I found this comment of yours quite interesting ‘Now I loved living in Cambridge and I found the whole idea of gowns and ritual exciting as a child looking in but it wasn’t what I wanted as a 21 year old. I wanted skills and experiences that would help me get a job and I really didn’t see myself as an academic’
      I think the difference for you is that the persons closet to you i.e. your parents were academics and did wear the gown so for you it was not a great leap. I too was able to go into higher (arts) education, this was because my Father studied at Lincolns Inn and also graduated from Southbank Polytechnic. My late dear mother used to show me pictures of my father in his gowns, so obviously I could place myself there too. I grew up on a ‘sink’ council estate and went to a rough school in London East End, I always had ideas ‘above my station’ and did what I could to physically and mentally get out. Yes I have been called ‘full of it’ ‘pretentious’ and ‘up my own a…’ in the past but I was only falling back on heritage, valuing books and academia like dad! Although in no way I am saying that I have achieved great heights in my career, the difference is that I am determined that my son is given the support (by his parents) to do so.
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        Nov 14 2011: Hello and thanks for your comments. My parents also gave me support but I had to find the value of education for myself and I did and at the moment I am studying for my doctorate. Education is for all, that I am passionate about but societies belief in hierachies of establishments limit us in what education is for (in my personal opinion). I worked for 10 years for the Open University and still believe that their course content is some of the best globally and their concept of tutorial support for students is incredibly robust. If I was starting out now and could choose anywhere I could do my degree with the knowledge I have of the education system I am not sure that I would choose to go to Harvard or Cambridge to be honest. I certainly would choose by finding out much more however about the teaching staff who would support my learning and look to the wide range of support services on offer through the use of a wide range of technologies and also to see what work related opportunities were available. I will always be passionate about education but not about 'brands'.

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